Ian Anderson: New Zealand’s Housing Crisis and the Scapegoating of ‘Foreigners’

Marae meeting house
Meeting house of a Māori marae; photo credit: itravelNZ

In Aotearoa/NZ, the housing bubble has yet to burst at the time of writing. House prices in Auckland quadrupled from 1991-2014, and wages have not kept up. Recent years have seen a drop in homeownership to just below 50% of the adult population. The same period has seen a 25% spike in homelessness. Yet both of the major political parties obscure the housing crisis, either ignoring it or blaming ‘foreign’ elements, thereby keeping investors and privileged voters onside.

National barely acknowledges the housing crisis. As of late August 2016, outgoing Prime Minister John Key finally conceded the existence of a housing crisis after years of pressure. However, Key evaded responsibility for the crisis, blaming the previous Labour government.

Meanwhile Labour acknowledges the housing crisis while obscuring its cause. This was most shockingly underlined by Labour’s controversial ‘Chinese surnames’ intervention, where Labour released a list of home buyers with ‘Chinese surnames’, failing to distinguish between migrant labour and international capital. As local hip hop artist David Dallas argues, in his excellent track ‘I Don’t Rate That’:

They buying everything that ain’t taxed
Blame it on the Chinese
Say it’s foreign buyers
But if a Brit buys up you don’t bat an eyelid

The Labour Party’s reintroduction of Yellow Peril discourse is in line with both their own history (e.g. supporting the White New Zealand policy in the early 20th century) and international trends in electoral politics (with the Trump and Brexit campaigns scapegoating migrants). Growing social and economic contradictions among the people; between property owner and vagrant, mortgagee and lender, landlord and tenant; are safely displaced onto a nonpublic, an ‘Other’, defined through racial rather than economic characteristics. In fact, although the government does not collect comprehensive stats on ownership of housing, data from Land Information New Zealand indicates that only 3% of buyers and sellers are foreign tax residents.

According to Roy Morgan polls, New Zealanders’ main concern is ‘inequality’. However, content analysis reveals that the two major parties appeal to ‘New Zealanders’ as their main constituency, a nationally rather than economically defined public. Examining opposite terms to New Zealander, National is the most likely party to use the term ‘international’ (often referring to international trade), while Labour is the most likely party to use the term ‘foreigner’. Labour Party press releases never identify ‘investors’, ‘speculators’, ‘bankers’ per se as a negative influence; rather, they only couple these terms with modifiers such as ‘Australian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘foreign’.

Marxist geographer David Harvey notes in Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism that many middle-class ‘consumers’ gain (precarious) wealth from housing bubbles, not only super-rich investors: “[H]ousing asset values have become important political objectives for larger and larger segments of the population and a major political issue because the exchange value for consumers is as important as the exchange value earned by producers”. Herein lies the contradiction for major parties; how to address the housing crisis without alienating voters who benefit from the boom, particularly the older Pākeha (white/non-Māori New Zealanders) who are likeliest to vote. New Zealand citizens are the main owners of New Zealand housing, and many benefit from driving up prices (e.g. landlords). Harvey also argues that “accumulation by dispossession… [is] the hallmark of what capital is really about”, in this case the dispossession of Māori land necessary to establish a private housing market. While Pākehā benefit from the housing boom, Māori are disproportionately affected, with 21 per 1,000 Maori homeless, compared with 4 per 1,000 in the general population.

As the major parties chase the (Pākehā) ‘centre’, mainstream discourse polarises between neoliberal business-as-usual and racist nationalism. Rather than addressing the roots of the housing crisis in colonial dispossession and private exploitation of land, the major parties either ignore the crisis or scapegoat minorities.

By Ian Anderson, MA student (adapted from thesis on ‘publics’ in Aotearoa/New Zealand)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *